Past Reading Groups

Spring 2020:

The Political Economy of Paternalism

Policies such as prohibiting the sale of various drugs believed to be harmful, contributing to a pension system (like Social Security), or wearing seat-belts and helmets, are often justified on the grounds that the affected person will be better off, or less harmed, as a result of the policy. However, when people prefer not to be treated this way, it’s often called “paternalism.” But should government officials interfere in people’s lives, against their will, if doing so can potentially make them better off or protect them from harm?

The spring 2020 economics reading group explored these and other questions like:

  • Are most people mostly rational most of the time (as many economists believe)?
  • How should people be treated if they are not fully rational?
  • What is the difference between hard and soft paternalism?
  • Should government officials “nudge” people into making better decisions by changing the presentation of choices (sometimes called “libertarian paternalism”)?

Students in this reading group will also attended a weekend summit in Dallas, TX, February 21-22, 2019, on Southern Methodist University’s campus where they met with other students from Baylor, Texas Tech, and SMU, who read the same works.

The Advent of Capitalism

Students in this reading group spent eight weeks exploring the intellectual, political, and ideological currents that led to the rise of capitalism. Participants in the group considered questions such as:

  • Will the machine makers find willing buyers?
  • Will the emerging capitalist class establish more efficient means of production?
  • Will the weavers find meaningful work among the new machines or will they join a Luddite Rebellion?
  • How will the aristocracy respond to the emergence of a wealthy capitalist class?

During the reading group students were asked to weigh the costs and benefits of technological change, the importance of traditional institutions, and the benefits of market economies. In wrestling with these issues, students will read and discuss a variety of primary texts, including Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Robert Owen’s A New View of Society, Thomas Malthus’s “An Essay on Population,” and others.

Fall 2019:

The Past, Present, and Future of Work

The history of paid work and labor markets in the US is the story of increasing standards of living. It is also the story of women, immigrants, teenagers, and racial minorities encountering social and legal discrimination, and overcoming it (sometimes). Increasing skills, labor productivity, and wages have often gone hand in hand, though not always. Why not? And what does the future hold? What role does immigration play in labor markets? What about labor unions? And occupational licensing? And the minimum wage? Students explored these and related questions through readings by a variety of scholars such as Milton Friedman, Claudia Goldin, Price Fishback, and David Card.

Students in this reading group also had the opportunity to attend a weekend summit in Dallas, TX on Southern Methodist University’s campus where they met with other students from Baylor, Texas Tech, and SMU, who had been reading the same works.

Enlightenment and Revolution

Students in this reading group spent eight weeks exploring the intellectual, political, and ideological currents that surged through revolutionary Paris in the summer of 1791. When participating in a Reacting to the Past game on the French Revolution, students took on the roles of leaders of major factions within the National Assembly (and in the streets outside) as it struggled to create a constitution amidst internal chaos and threats of foreign invasion. Will the king retain power? Will the priests of the Catholic Church obey the “general will” of the National Assembly or the dictates of the pope in Rome? Do traditional institutions and values constitute restraints on freedom and individual dignity or are they its essential bulwarks? Are slaves, women, and Jews entitled to the “rights of man”? Is violence a legitimate means of changing society or of purging it of dangerous enemies? In wrestling with these issues, students read and discussed a variety of primary texts, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract, Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” and others.

Landmark Supreme Court Cases

The Supreme Court is a co-equal part of our federal government along with Congress and the President. And, yet, it is often overlooked or misunderstood. When Congress or the President makes a decision, there is not a legal document showing how that decision was reached. Most Supreme Court decisions, however, come with a legal opinion. Over the course of ten weeks, students in this reading group read major Supreme Court opinions covering topics such as corporate free speech rights, religious freedom, equal protection, and federalism. Students also had the opportunity to visit the Arkansas Supreme Court and listen to an oral argument.

Spring 2019:

The Economics of Knowledge: How an Economic Way of Thinking Can Help You Understand Markets, Governments, and Why Your College Tuition is So High

The Economics of Knowledge Reading Group explored questions about how markets help individuals discover and evaluate knowledge. Some topics included:

Why do college graduates make so much more money than non-college graduates?
Which public policies should be determined by experts and which should be determined by voters?
How should leaders make decisions when information is unclear or complicated?

Students will read essays and book excerpts by scholars such as F.A. Hayek, Joseph Stiglitz, Bryan Caplan, and Cass Sunstein. They will meet once a week over dinner to discuss these works with other UCA students. In February students attended a summit in Dallas on Southern Methodist University’s campus with other students from Baylor, Texas Tech, and SMU, who have been reading the same works. Program author Bryan Caplan spoke at the summit and students had opportunity to ask him questions about his work.

The Birth and Evolution of Democracy

Students in this reading group learned about the origins and evolution of democracy by reading and discussing a wealth of primary source documents as well as contemporary secondary articles to help explain what democracy is and has been, how democracy works, and what arguments have been made for and against democracy throughout history.

This group also spent a weekend on UCA’s campus playing a Reacting to the Past game “The Threshold of Democracy.” During this weekend, they were assigned a character who participated in the restoration of the Athenian government in 403 BCE and debated questions like: Will Athens retain a political system where all decisions are made by an Assembly of citizens? Will leaders continue to be chosen by random lottery? By examining democracy at its threshold, students gain a richer perspective on modern democracies and republics.

Fall 2018:

The Role of Government in a Free Society

Participants in this group read and discussed works from some of the most influential thinkers of the past few centuries including Adam Smith, Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, Frederick Douglas, Angelina Grimké, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, and many more that look at the role of government in a free society. They explored questions such as: What is freedom? What is the legitimate role of government? For what purposes are we willing to forcibly extract tax revenue from members of society? Where and how do we draw the line? Students looked at these questions from the perspectives of economists, political philosophers, policy experts and others.

Additionally, students who participated in this reading group attended an all-expenses paid trip to Dallas for a weekend summit with students from other universities participating in parallel reading groups hosted by the O’Neil Center at Southern Methodist University on October 12 – 13.

Institutions and the Constitution

What is the proper role of government? What should its primary function be? What role should government play in the lives of everyday citizens? How do legal and social institutions increase or decrease the power of government? In this reading group, students explored these questions in relation to the creation of the United States Constitution. Students will read works from scholars like Dennis Mueller, James Buchanan, and Joyce Appleby, as well as a wealth of primary source documents.

As part of this reading group, students will spend a weekend at a mock Constitutional Convention where they will debate issues and write a Constitution.

Students will have the opportunity to ask interesting questions as well as learn from some of the most influential thinkers from the past and the present.

Spring 2018:

The Capitalist/Pre-Capitalist Mentality

Was America founded by self-sufficient farmers or by producers and consumers intimately connected to vibrant and complex local and international markets? When did colonists move from an informal community-based economy to capitalism? Or were they capitalists all along? Historians’ long debates over these questions has seeped into part of our beliefs about life in early America. Participants in this group read and discussed important works by leading scholars that examined the role of agriculture, markets, and the “empire of goods” in the evolution of America’s founding. They explored questions such as: Was anyone in early America really self-sufficient? What was the role of markets in the lives of most colonists? Was there “a moment” when capitalism appeared? What kinds of goods were colonists interested in buying? How did this world of goods contribute to the American Revolution?

Marcus Witcher joins the history reading group at the ACRE house to discuss how Capitalism developed in the 18th century.

Freedom and Human Flourishing: Poverty, Prosperity & Quality of Life around the World

Participants in this group read and discussed work by scholars such as George Ayittey, Daron Acemoglu, Bill Easterly, and Deirdre McCloskey that examined the role of personal freedom, markets, and culture in promoting human flourishing. They explored questions like: Why are some nations prosperous while other remain impoverished? How should we measure socio-economic progress? What role does foreign aid play in helping the poor? How has the quality of life changed over time around the world? How do government policies and markets affect our well-being?

Additionally students who participated in this reading group had the opportunity to participate in a joint summit hosted by Southern Methodist University on February 16-17, 2018.

Reading group students in Dallas for the SMU summit where they discussed what they have been reading with students from several states.

Fall 2017:

Economics and Social Issues: Markets and the Marginalized

The Fall 2017 Reading Group began in August and lasted for 11 weeks. A group of 10 students from a variety of majors and backgrounds met on weekly to examine how disadvantaged groups fare in wealthy societies. They read works by a variety of scholars including Claudia Goldin, Walter Williams, and Thomas Leonard. Discussion questions included: How do markets and government help or hinder disadvantaged groups? What role has race played in the history of economic thought? What are the effects of discrimination in labor markets? What are the consequences of mass incarceration? Why do women typically earn less than men? What explains persistent poverty among Native Americans? Students in this reading group also had the opportunity to travel to Dallas, Texas to participate in a multi-campus reading group hosted by Southern Methodist University and here keynote speaker Walter Williams discuss his work.

ACRE Reading Group participants had the opportunity to meet Dr. Walter Williams while in Dallas.


Spring 2017:

Cities, Local Government, and Local Governance

Participants in the spring 2017 reading group read and discussed a variety of works by economists, political scientists, and urban scholars like Jane Jacobs, Elinor Ostrom, and Edward Glaeser. The group was led by Dr. Zack Donohew and consisted of 10 students from a variety of majors and backgrounds. The students in this group also participated in a summit in Dallas, Texas with a multi-campus reading group discussion. Students from UCA and three other universities all came together to learn from each other and from Harvard University economics professor Dr. Edward Glaeser, the author of The Triumph of the City, who was the event’s keynote speaker. Students were able to discuss his book with him and ask him questions about his research. Glaeser also responded to an inquiry after the event from one of our ACRE research fellows. Glaeser helped him to incorporate a new methodology into his Honors’ thesis. Meeting and discussing scholarly works in these kinds of settings is just one of many opportunities that make the reading group a formative experience.

Students enjoyed being able to meet Edward Glaeser at the multi-campus reading discussions at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

Students met and conversed with Edward Glaeser at the multi-campus reading summit at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.


Fall 2016:

When Voters Do Bad Things

For Fall 2016, Dr. Zack Donohew lead a group of ten interdisciplinary students through It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis and Dr. Jason Brennan’s The Ethics of Voting. The salience of the readings was high in a close presidential election year. Students drew on current events nationally and in Arkansas to relate to their readings. ACRE also hosted Brennan for several university events, including a dinner with the reading group where they got to ask questions about ethics, democracy, his works, and predictions on the  2016 election.

Students listen to a lecture from Dr. Jason Brennan on the ethics of voting.

Students listen to a lecture from Dr. Jason Brennan on the ethics of voting.